Iraq held its first elections since the defeat of the so called Islamic State (ISIS), the results surprised all major actors, internally, regionally and internationally. Muqtada al Sadr declared victory, he once held strong ties with Iran but was sidelined by those who were willing to go the extra mile for the theocracy next door. Now, he considers himself a nationalist, vowing to unite Iraq, tackle corruption and remove all foreign entities from its soil, including Iran and the United States. But what does this mean for the Kurdistan Region?
For Barzani to align with Muqtada al Sadr’s Sairoon bloc (The Marchers) can only mean one thing, defeat. The independence referendum was clearly an anti-Iraq campaign, where KDP officials widely stated that Iraq is a failure, where they continued to push for an isolationist policy. The sudden return to Baghdad as if a referendum never happened proves KDPs true intent is survival not self-determination. KDPs strategy is in line with its history as they have aligned with Saddam, Iranian regime, and Turkey’s Erdogan, so swinging back and forth should not surprise anyone familiar with Kurdish politics. At a time when PUK established ties with Maliki, and opposition parties like the Change Movement (Gorran), and newly formed New Generation Movement voiced their opinions against the referendum, and demanded to establish dialogue with Baghdad, KDP labeled them traitors. From a KDP perspective, if KDP goes against its so-called principles of self-determination, its simply politics but when others make the same move, its treason.
Iraq today is stronger than it has been since before the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. For Iraq, the Islamic State has been defeated, the Iraqi military is functioning to a degree once again, there now exists the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) which is funded by Iran and are willing to fight for unity of the country, the referendum campaign led by KDP is over and failed to Iraq’s liking, Kirkuk has been retrieved, airports and airspace secured as are border crossings and witnessed a successful threat free election. For the Kurdistan Region of Iraq? The leadership lost everything for the region, and the KRG is back to square one. Multiple antigovernment mass demonstrations have taken place, shootings, kidnappings, loss of oil revenue, territory, and parliament is still in tatters, the list goes on and on. Since the elections, KDP has met with many of the major lists including Ammar al Hakim’s Hikma (Wisdom) list, Hadi al Amiri’s Badr Organization, Maliki’s Dawa Party without meeting any Kurdish parties all while calling for “unity” in KRG.
The KRG is dysfunctional as ever, Iraq was able to get itself back together (at minimum portrays an image of unity) following the defeat of ISIS but the Kurdish leadership still lacks basic strategy on how to recover. US Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk recently met with all the Kurdish factions separately rather than making a single KRG visit. This clearly illustrates the divide in the Kurdish region, where parties cannot even present a united voice to the United States.
The results of the elections in the Kurdish region was faced with accusations of fraud, rigged systems and the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) was faulted for “fulfilling neither their logistical, technical, nor humanitarian responsibilities” by the independent Kurdish Institute for Elections (KIE) report. Some of the violations reported by KIE in Sulaymaniyah province, were:
– 85 percent of the observed polling stations did not open at 7:00 AM.
– 25 percent of the observed polling stations, voters voted without using the electronic machines.
– 100 percent of polling stations did not give observers copies of the ballot scanned images results.
– 20 percent of the votes that were canceled by the alternative counting & separating vote’s electronic machine were valid votes.
Both KDP and PUK also accused one another of voter fraud while the smaller parties aligned and insisted on a redo of the entire elections due to rigging. KDP won more seats than other Kurdish parties with 25, although it did not lose any seats compared to previous elections, it did not gain either. A gradual transition from old guard parties such as the KDP and PUK is on the horizon as opposition movements are attempting to change the status quo.
Nonetheless, the KRG will continue to be a platform for tribal politics until institutions are consistently functioning most notably the Parliament. The KDP remains a strong party due to their realpolitik approach, they’re willing to do anything to survive no matter how they are perceived by the opposition. Perhaps it is time for other Kurdish factions in the region to take the same route in order to compete with the KDP. The Kurdistan Region will hold its own parliamentary elections on September 30th of this year. If the Iraqi elections was a preview of how Kurdish elections will function, it’ll further hinder the regions image let alone the push for self-determination.
Originally published at Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) on May 25, 2018.